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Franck-ly speaking, Part IX: Choral in b minor

This is the ninth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the second Choral in B minor. See the first post in the series for background information.


You may want to fire me for saying this, but this piece sounds better if played in one rather than in three. Yes, Franck indicated 3/4 and marked it Maestoso, but a large beat of 1 can be majestic, too. I’m not advocating for 3/8, but if this piece is too slow, then the recurring theme and its momentum are lost, and there is little glory in things to come later on in the piece. Give it some thought, make the theme move along, and make any accompaniment fit in with that at all times.

Measures 1-32: There are a number of spots where it might help the rhythm and the independence of voices if the hands and feet release notes at different times. For example, in measure 4, the Pedal needs to release the F-sharp in order to re-strike it, but that does not mean the hands should release their note early, as well. Experiment with this sort of thing as you wish. I feel it enhances the independence of the various lines and lends a sense of continuing, rather than bringing everything to a halt just because the primary voice needs a breath.

Measures 8, 10, 12, and similar spots throughout the piece: It is fine to break the main melody for phrasing. (Don’t forget that wall-to-wall legato came around after Franck.) The problem with that occurs when those breaks alter the forward-moving rhythm of the whole theme. Don’t allow any breaks to interfere with the progress of the theme.

Measure 24: I don’t repeat the F-sharp in the right hand.

Measures 27-28: I play the bass notes in the Pedal (no Pedal stops on), to assist with legato.

Measures 33-39: Here is another example of what I’m talking about by playing the piece in a feeling of one rather than three. Most folks make a huge, emotive deal out of the eighth notes and eighth rests in the manuals in these measures. But the melody is in the Pedal here, and it has its own ideas of how things should be paced. Pay attention to the melody, and stop setting up camp on the eighth rests in the manuals. Keep things moving; use the shape of the melody to inform all other voices.

Measures 41-48: Again, the melody needs to move and to rule. Although the accompaniment here is difficult to play, it must move along in service to the melody. Transfer your ears’ allegiance to the theme, and the piece suddenly comes together.

Measures 49-64. Same comments. Melody, melody, melody.

Measure 64: I have always found that moment strange the way Franck wrote it, and so I “fix” it by playing the third beat in the Pedal an octave higher. I also don’t make a huge break into 65; I use the eighth notes of the third beat to carry us into the next theme. Seamlessness is a good thing.

Measures 65-80: I know it’s tempting, but this section should not go slower. Don’t forget that this theme will be combined with the main theme later on, and so it should follow the contour of the main theme, even if not present.

Measures 80-114: This begins a “development” of sorts, as it were. The main theme is not present, so now you may emote and mess around with rhythm and tempo!

Measure 114: Most people put the brakes on hard here. I put the brakes on, but I start much earlier, to make it a more subtle ritard that leads smoothly into 115.

Measures 115-126: This is the true Chorale, hiding in this little section and in its companion section at the very end of the piece. Don’t hurry through it, and remember that it is subtle and will not survive attempts to turn it into a major event.

Same section: No 32-foot? Play the Pedal an octave lower (except the low Bs, of course). That’s one option. Another option is to play 115-118 an octave lower, then move to the tenor octave in 119. That will prevent the chromatic descent in the Pedal from being displaced an octave when the B comes along in 120. Now, to move to the tenor octave in 119, I play the first beat on low D (continuing 8vb from 115), then add a quarter note on the second beat on tenor D. It’s only one note so subtle and unexpected that few people will hear the difference. No one will run you out of town for it. Again, both of these options just described are useful only if the organ doesn’t have a 32-foot flue, or if the 32-foot flue it does have is too heavy or too quint-y.

Measures 119-122: Notice Franck’s quoting of his own melody from the first movement of his Symphony (for orchestra). That can’t be an accident!

Measures 131-135 and 142-147: I wouldn’t go too slowly here. This needs to be looking ahead to the gloriousness to come. In both sections, you can make some interesting decisions on what to tie, what to make legato, and what to detach. Use your own judgment – it’s probably right. I also couple the manuals to (dead) Pedal to assist with legato in 133-135 and 145-147.

Measures 148 and following: This is the "fugue," if you insist on finding one. Franck says we can move this along a bit. In any event, the “development” is over, and it’s time to get back to having the main theme call the metrical shots.

Measure 149: This is one of those maddening moments in organ music: Should we break that G in the melody to hear the eighth-note motion in the accompanying voice? In most cases, when we encounter a moment like this, we can make a decision based on the acoustics, the organ, or anything else. But I have discovered that if played all on one manual, this spot never sounds good, no matter what. My solution is to start at 148 with the right hand on the main manual and the left on another similarly-registered manual not coupled. Then bring the left hand to the main manual during the rest in 156.

Measures 162-194: You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to decide when to tie, when to break, and when to play legato. But it’s worth the trouble. Work things out, and write them in. In some cases, you’ll want to break more notes in a warm acoustic. But always make a decision that serves the rhythm and meter. If too many notes break, we hear an “event.” If not enough notes break, we lose the eighth-note motion.

Measures 182 and 186: I use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato.

Measure 187: Many people ritard here, but again, since it’s in the middle of a statement of the main theme, it should follow the same contour the melody has maintained all along. Listen with all your might to the main theme throughout this entire piece, and the piece will then assemble itself into a very clean structure that needs little help from you otherwise.

Measure 188: I move to a somewhat louder registration here.

Measures 195-226: The themes are finally combined. There is nothing you can do to make that clear to your audience, especially to first-time listeners. So just play it, no slower, and obey the contour of the main theme (in the Pedal) for phrasing.

Measures 209-210: The soprano tie across the barline between these two measures is a mystery to me. It doesn't appear in sister sections (79-80 and 225-226), so I'm taking it out!

Measures 211-226: There’s that pesky main theme calling the shots again. I can’t overemphasize that approach to structuring the phrasing. Although the upper voice appears to have more emotive potential, it absolutely cannot be allowed to derail the main theme (Pedal), just because it “wants a moment!”

Measure 222: After much discussion with myself, I decided to change a note. (Quelle horreur!) Compare the left hand in 222 with the left hand in 206. If 222 goes as written, then there would be parallel octave motion between the second tenor and the Pedal. I "fix" that in 222 by changing the second tenor third beat to an E, to match the voice leading in 206. Now, Franck does indulge in parallel fifths all the time (measures 96 and 104 in this piece, plus plenty in other pieces), but notice how this section (195-226) is absolutely pure in its five-voice texture -- it is some of the richest writing we have from Franck, because it is so pure in its voice leading. Hence my suggested change (well, that, and making the notes identical from statement to statement is easier to memorize, too!).

Measure 257: Some ritard is good, but too much will spoil the chromatic tension here. You need to arrive at 258, not get stuck in 257.

Measures 258-272: Of course, we can go slower and grander here. But that melody is still in charge – use it to determine the flow of things.

Measures 266-269: It is possible to play both octaves of the Pedal legato. Pedaling for the Bs to the F#s is straightforward. The Gs to the Ds may be pedaled LF o^, RF ^o (toes pointed out, not parallel). Loosen up those ankles and give it a try!

Measure 270: Franck’s Molto rall. is not kidding. You’ll need it to keep 273 from taking off before you were finished with the main theme.

Measure 273 leads into 274. Try not to take a huge break to hit a piston. Try to keep it all flowing, one idea to the other.

Measures 274-285: Same comments as for 115-126.

Measures 285-end: I solo out the eighth notes. In 287, I span my left hand across two manuals, playing the low B on the eighth-note manual and the tenor F-sharp on the Swell. I transfer the low B to the Swell in the very last measure; it helps to make further decrescendo.

Measures 287-288: The Pedal will disappear on the low Bs if you don’t have some independent 8-foot stops drawn. Listen carefully there, and if you do choose to make a registrational adjustment, make them from 274 on.

This piece has always been with me. I learned it in college, one of my teachers recorded it, and the other one claimed to have played it “when God was a child.” Although it is mostly quarter notes and eighth notes, it is hard to play and to play well. Approach it with love and care and with ears listening in the right places.

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